Jerry Gillotti just keeps jazzin’ on

Because I like him and hadn’t seen him in a while, I had breakfast with Jerry Gillotti this past week. I learn a lot every time I sit for a while with Gillotti — about the music business, about the ups and downs of running a club, about how downtown Dayton’s pulse feels lately to somebody who makes a living by keeping his finger to its often-uneven rhythm and flow.

From his longtime jazz and blues club, Gilly’s, the pulse seems fairly steady at the moment — not the strongest in the 36 years he’s been bringing shows to Fifth and Jefferson streets, but steady.

He’s staying reasonably busy, and he is encouraged by the possibility of development at the Arcade not far away, saying he hopes “the guy’s for real.” The sidewalk outside Gilly’s is quieter and a bit more club-friendly, he says, since the Greyhound station moved last fall, but he really misses Gem City Records, whose recent closing left him without a place to sell tickets downtown during the day.

He arranged instead to sell tickets at the Half-Price Books store near the Mall at Fairfield Commons and at Huber Music and Video in Huber Heights — typical of how Gillotti has kept finding new ways over the years to roll with the punches in a weird and ever-changing business.

“When I opened, I used to do jazz six nights a week, three sets,” he says matter-of-factly over French toast at his favorite morning nook, Kettering’s Golden Nugget. Those were the days when smoky, old-fashioned jazz was still a mainstream staple — back when it was hot with younger fans, before it fell off the commercial airwaves, and before “smooth” jazz took its place.

Smooth acts are now his strongest, and he reels off a short list of winners who sell out any time he books them — Pieces of a Dream, Kim Waters, Marion Meadows, Walter Beasley and Alex Bugnon. He encouraged them on the way up, “and they all played with me before smooth jazz even existed.”

But the landscape is different in lots of other ways. It irritates him, if he thinks about it, that artists he first brought to town now play at tax-supported or nonprofit venues that he considers in direct competition; he says the only time he ever seriously thought about moving from downtown was when the city of Dayton ran a jazz series at Island Park a few years ago and booked performers he introduced. “After George Benson played there, he came down and saw me,” Gillotti says.

Gilly’s stayed put, though, and nowadays is open about three nights a week — one of the few jazz clubs left in Ohio. Gillotti fills the house on the first and third Friday of every month with an old-school R&B dance party sponsored by WROU-FM, and he has strategically added blues and rock acts to his bill. He’ll happily take a chance on offbeat act that might draw a crowd and jumps at booking an old friend whenever he can — such as Dave Greer, whose old-time jazz band the Stompers were in the market for a new venue recently and will play Gilly’s on April 21.

At age 73, Gillotti’s learning new ways, such as Facebook, to get the word out — and picks up tips from his niece and a younger employee who’s a bit hipper to social media than he is. “I’m ready for assisted living,” he chuckles.

Gillotti confesses he doesn’t enjoy putting up with spoiled musicians, or getting into dust-ups with band managers, as much as he used to, but he recounts old war stories with gusto and a laugh. How much longer does he think he’ll keep at this game?

“Well, I’ve two more years on my lease, with a five-year option,” he said, adding that he’s still having fun. “In general, yeah. But trying to please people is more of a burden than I can handle anymore.”

Could have fooled us.

Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2165 or rrollins@DaytonDaily

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